Bob Dylan’s “Minstrel Boy”: a Basement Tape song or new for the gig?

By Tony Attwood

“Minstrel Boy” is an extraordinary Dylan song that really doesn’t sound like a Dylan composition.  Indeed if I were to hear it without any knowledge of the song, I don’t think I’d guess it was Dylan at all.

There has been considerable discussion as to when it was written.  The copyright information suggests 1969 – when it was performed at the Isle of Wight Festival.  But Dylan has suggested it came to him during the Basement Tape period.

We have two versions of it: one from Bootleg 11 and one from Self Portrait and both are really worth a listen if you don’t know the song.  It is just so unexpected.

The suggestion is that Bob was hitting back at everyone who was wanting more and more product, more and more songs, more albums, and all at a time when he wasn’t too sure he really wanted to write much more.  He felt controlled, pushed around, a minstrel boy holding out his hand for scraps, made to play like a servant in medieval times before his masters.

Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who’s gonna let it roll?
Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who’s gonna let it down easy to save his soul?

In this simple understanding of the song, Dylan is “Lucky” having got to the top of the rock, the personality hill, but he really feels bad about everything that he sees, because he’s just had enough.  And his personal propulsion unit has no reverse gear…

Oh, Lucky’s been drivin’ a long, long time
And now he’s stuck on top of the hill
With twelve forward gears, it’s been a long hard climb
And with all of them ladies, though, he’s lonely still

The change of tempo and rhythm between the chorus and verse is particularly impressive, and if not unique in Dylan’s songs, it is certainly unusual.

And if there was ever any doubt as to who he was singing about, he is, as he says at the end, still on the road.

Well, he deep in number and heavy in toil
Mighty Mockingbird, he still has such a heavy load
Beneath his bound’ries, what more can I tell
With all of his trav’lin’, but I’m still on that road

As it turns out, that was just about it for this style of writing, but it was an avenue that Bob could have taken further had he wanted, I am sure.

So often in writing the reviews of less famous Dylan songs I find myself suddenly thinking of another piece written maybe years before or years after, in which I get the feeling Bob has returned to the same thoughts as before.

I’m not too sure how I can justify the claim of a link between “Minstrel Boy” and “Well well well” but it just feels like there is something that crosses time between the two songs…

take care of your body like you care for your soul
don’t dig yourself into a hole
until you’ve paid the price you can’t know what it’s worth
the air water fire and earth

We’re all moving on all the time, but really, we all have basic needs that have to be satisfied, and when those needs are not looked after, no matter who we are, we are in trouble.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.




  1. The first version of “Minstrel Boy” is on Bootleg 11 because it’s a Basement Tapes song. It’s also on Bootleg 10, labeled as a Basement Tapes song. I think that answers the question in the title.

    The connection to “Well Well Well” is intriguing. How about this, from “I’ll Keep It with Mine”:

    The train leaves at half past ten
    But it’ll be back in the same old spot again
    The conductor he’s weary
    He’s still stuck on the line
    And if I can save you any time
    Come on, give it to me
    I’ll keep it with mine

    And of course this, from “It Takes a Lot to Laugh”:

    And if I die on top of the hill
    And if I don’t make it, you know my baby will.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *